A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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Though I’m fifty-four, my mother, most unfortunately, still sits solidly in the middle of my gut, perched on her own personal throne there and issuing her instructions. Far more frequently than I care to admit, she influences, if not downright decides, what it is I’ll wear or say or do that day, when I’ll speak and when I’ll stay silent. Like an overenthusiastic paid pundit, she critiques my child-rearing choices and points out both my flaws and my successes, reporting it all in a daily newspaper in my mind. Try as I might to ignore her columns, I’m as drawn to them as a writer to her first reviews, and I scour them for meanings both implicit and explicit.
The values my mother branded me with long ago still direct me down roads as familiar as they are compulsive: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” “Don’t ever be a quitter.” “You should try so hard at whatever you do that little beads of blood appear on your forehead.” For sure we Slaters were a dreary, driven bunch, two parents and four kids, hoeing and hacking our way through a world where play was for pansies.
It’s easy to criticize your parents, especially when they’re squatters in your internal rooms, refusing eviction. But for all their Victorian humorlessness, my parents produced four children of keen accomplishment: doctors, writers, dancers; every one of us alert and wide-eyed and so driven we rarely obey the speed limits of life or the obvious laws of self-care.
My parents expected brilliance of us, but at some point I realized that brilliance was a blessing, not a birthright. No matter how hard I worked, it was fickle and obeyed rules far beyond any I could comprehend. This came as a crushing blow to me, for I knew at a young age that I was a writer, and yet I also knew that no matter how much I applied myself to my work, I could not will it into brilliance. Brilliance, genius, or what-have-you favors the prepared but is far from a daily visitor even to the most diligent among us. In my early-to-mid-twenties, over a stretch of six sweating years, I never saw a story flow from my pen, nor an essay, nor anything that even made sense — just vapid words and ideas so lean the bone showed through, all gristle and vein. The more miserably I failed, the harder I tried, the nib of my pen boring ratty holes in the flimsy lined paper. I was depressed, even devastated, watching from the window as the seasons turned, autumn giving way to white giving way to green and then autumn again, the trees so colorful they looked like they’d been dipped in pots of paint. The painful writer’s block finally stopped when I ceased aiming for publication and switched instead to a journal, where nothing was expected of me except basic literacy. I wrote a hundred pages: some simple records of my days, others fanciful with more depth. In those six years, and in the hundred journal pages that followed, I learned that outstanding writing — brilliance, shall we say — is not at all under our conscious control; it can come and go and then not come, the channels in the brain blocked by noxious gunk that can only sometimes be overcome.
What choice did I have — do I have — in my work and in my life but to opt for the one thing I could control, which was competence? That word, competence, came to me after my six-year struggle; it came as an alternative, if not an outright escape hatch, to the daily grind of despair. And why despair? If one’s sights are set on genius, and genius is a fair-weather friend or no friend at all, then one must live one’s life in a state of high anxiety and perpetual failure . . . unless one decides to take on competence as a confidante. When I think of competence, I envision a table made of pine planks, the wood polished to a honey hue. I think of something solid, with heft and heart. Competence does not awe you; it welcomes you. It says, “Sit.” It says, “Yes, you can do it.”
Perhaps the one act of rebellion I’ve made in a life full of obeisance to my internal gods is to reject the genius mandate and opt instead for competence. This has freed me on the one hand, and made a drone of me on the other. I do not allow myself to expect brilliance; I attempt to squelch even the slightest longing for it. But I do allow myself to strive for paragraphs as well made — if I may say, as masterful — as any solid piece of furniture constructed by a skilled carpenter.
I can’t say why, then, I recently swerved from my mantra and decided to try a different way of being. It could have had to do with the approach of my fifty-fifth birthday and some vision I had of a road narrowing to a faraway point in a copse of trees and a lone, cold figure standing there, staring back at me. It could have had to do with the death of my favorite aunt, who, on a car ride back from New York City, flew through the windshield in a shattering of glass and never woke to the world again — and the accompanying sense that in a snippet of a second your life can end, and before it does, or when it does, you’d best be smiling rather than sweating. Or maybe these are just far-fetched, far-flung, highfalutin excuses, and the change came simply because the season did — to winter, I mean, the light now fading fast, the day slamming shut at 4 PM, and with that arrived the concomitant need for color.
I found it walking down the street in mid-December, on a gray day with sleet ticking against the storefront windows, the clouds slung low and lingering, the asphalt as black as metal. The art-store display caught my eye, a riot of cadmium red and phthalo blue, and, without thought or plan, I went in. Next thing I knew, I was back at home with ten tubes of watercolor paint, or “aquarelle,” a word that put me in mind of a turquoise sea, dolphins doing dances, the sky after a storm. Aquarelle: Someone spinning, wearing candy-pink toe shoes and a tufted skirt. Renoir brushing dancers onto a canvas in melon and streaky greens. I opened a tube, twisting the cap and squeezing until a nipple of color appeared at the tip, its name: quinacridone rose. Instructions (I bought a beginner’s book as well): squeeze paints onto a tray, dip sable-haired brush into clear water, load the brush with paint, and start to stroke. You could, according to my book, do washes, gradated washes, plain glazes, drizzle glazes, or spatter glazes. The pictures accompanying the directions showed works as luscious as cream-frosted cakes: landscapes ending in a haze of buttery light; cherry trees against a blunt blue sky, the fruits as red as cough drops. This watercolor world quickened my heart and made me want to try, despite the fact that I knew not a thing about painting and, at the rough-and-tumble age of fifty-four, was not likely to acquire, shall we say, “competence” anytime soon.
As a child I’d despised art class in school. (What changed? I don’t know. It was as if I’d gone flying through some self-imposed windshield, the sound of shattering glass ringing in my ears.) I had resisted learning anything my childhood art instructors had to teach. Thus, as a painter, I was developmentally about four years old, able to depict a house, a ball, a tree, a picket fence, and a few stick figures with scrawls for smiles. That’s it. And yet suddenly, here, in my fifty-fifth circle around the sun and with no obvious prompt, I was dying to paint; it felt like I had to paint, like there was something in the white-as-a-baby’s-bedsheet paper squirming to get out, and my brush was less brush than scalpel, shaving away at the plain canvas in search of the bright spectrum that lived beneath.
I now see I was after nothing but beauty. Which is OK. The beginner’s book I’d bought (The Tao of Watercolor, by Jeanne Carbonetti) was illustrated with stunning pictures. In one, roses bled into roses in a mass of tender green. As a child wants candy or a writer her story, I wanted to create that color for myself. But my first tries were pitiful. As a competent person, I followed all the instructions to the last detail, yet I wound up with nothing even resembling a rose, just a smulch of color with no outline or depth. I tried again. And again. And again. I studied those damn instructions and the paintings that accompanied them, but no amount of effort, I soon saw, was going to allow me to re-create that watercolor rose garden in all its glory.
Fine. I washed up and put my paints away. I would consider this whole exercise a Tourette’s-like tic and would now get back to the business of my life, which was competent writing.
I sat at my desk and cooked up a few sentences. They looked odd to me, those sentences, but I couldn’t figure out why. I read them out loud. They sounded OK — nothing brilliant, of course, but I’d trained myself not to expect that, remember? I tried a few more sentences. Same feeling. Something seemed skewed, dull. I squinted at my screen. The words lost their meaning and became a scramble of black on white. Black and white. Precisely. In this dark and dreary winter season, at a time when the road was narrowing to a point, soon after my aunt had become an angel flying through glass, I didn’t want black and white. Almost faster than you can say abracadabra, I’d fallen in love with a whole new art form about which I knew nothing and, worse, for which I had — and modesty is not my goal here — zero talent.
Honestly. Zero. But a mountain of desire. This, perhaps, is how many conflicts arise. Common sense would have it that a person who learns to want what he or she is able to accomplish, or vice versa, is a sane and happy master of this trick called living. Common sense further has it that when desire and ability are disproportionate, as they were in my case, the person is heading down a dark tunnel.
Thing is, I was already in a dark tunnel, and I wasn’t sure it could get any darker. This is why I’d left my scrambled sentences stuttering on my computer and had come back to that painting table, ladling up more quina-whatever rose and lowering a juicy stroke to a clean sheet of white paper. The paint glided over the surface, and the streak was pure. Pure in color, pure in intent, and quite lovely, if a little lean. Next I tried a yellow called new gamboge. What on earth was new gamboge? A playfulness, almost a flirtiness, came over me. I closed my eyes and unscrewed the top, made the new-gamboge stroke blind. I opened my eyes to the brilliance of sun.
Over the next few weeks, despite my abilities heading to the left and my desires to the right, I abandoned my writing to paint. Did I have deadlines, work due? Indeed I did. But at the same time I sensed I was on some mission long overdue, and thus it was high time for . . . what? This was not about remembering the pleasures of play — although, while painting my smeary, incompetent quinacridone-rose and new-gamboge landscapes, I did recall precisely that. I recalled how essential it is to sit in some sandbox and build those castles that are sure to collapse, and soon. But this isn’t what I was after. I filled page after page, starting over, ripping the previous page smartly in half and stuffing it in the bin, the bin filling with wet scrap, the pure-white page before me another chance. In this game of incompetence there always seemed to be another chance. I was without ambition, without image and its partner, imagination. My mind was as white as the watercolor canvas.
What exactly was going on here? What was I trying to accomplish? I shut the beginner’s book and dove in sans any kind of instruction, smushing the creamy paint onto the paper and then spraying it with a fine mist of water, the pigments exploding into blossoms of reds and greens and golds, of turquoise and royal purple, my page streaked and soaked. Here I was, immersed in incompetence and loving it. Or, should I say, a large part of me was loving it. Erik Erikson, the great psychologist, talked about the achievement of competence as a critical developmental step that, if not taken, will keep one locked forever in immaturity. Erikson said that a person between the ages of, say, thirteen and eighteen learns to strive for competence, acquires skills, and slowly comes to see himself as a valid member of society. If said teenager fails to find competence, he is headed, according to Erikson, toward isolation and even delinquency.
I’d been living much of my life in line with Erikson’s theories on competence, but it was only when I swerved from them, when I allowed myself to stumble and splatter, that I discovered incompetence is as essential a skill as its opposite. How could this be? Incompetence requires a competent person to dwell in a sphere where nothing makes sense, where her prior skills are irrelevant and there is no hope of any new skills on the horizon. Thus you are forced to tolerate a total absence of skill, which is about staggering, flailing, and even falling, with no bottom in sight. I painted as I fell, and I fell as I painted, my brush streaking the sides of the hole I was spinning in. I saw the mess of mud I was making, the occasional pure streak of pale pink or rose red looking all the more beautiful next to the smeared mess, the paint on my palms, creased in my life lines, the spatters on the maple floor, the drips dribbling downward. This went on for days. I gave up my honey-hued tables and well-constructed fables and turned to those paints, trying for nothing and learning something in the process. Erikson, a big bear of a man with a white mustache, was dead but still loomed large not only in my mind but in psychology courses all over the country, maybe even the world. Had he been alive, perhaps I would have written to him, suggesting that he add incompetence to his developmental stages — although at what point in the life of a person, I am not sure.
Perhaps the ability to tolerate, even celebrate, incompetence is a midlife task, something to try after you have proven to yourself and your tribe that you know how to do the necessary things: earn a living, make love, raise your young, house-train a puppy. You speak in complete sentences and do not dangle your modifiers or mix up prepositions. You follow recipes carefully, and your dough always rises. You know how to ski and skate. You have traveled beyond your own country, and your household is proof of this: tiles from Morocco, maybe, or a vase from Turkey. You not only have a passport but know exactly where it is. You pay your parking tickets and the IRS on time. You do not notice, so involved are you in living your life well, that there is a purplish-black smudge of color at the end of your tunnel. You do not even notice the tunnel, believing instead that you live beneath a blue sky.
Incompetence, however — well, incompetence is a whole new game. You watch yourself fall to pieces. There go your ribs, your liver. Everything you create is trash, although not without spots of unintended beauty where the paintbrush kissed the paper in just the right way, at just the right moment, and a merger happened, the gold gliding into the red and creating a color of such tonal richness that you gasp. You try to repeat this feat but have no idea how you did it. The beauty you made has nothing to do with your ability and everything to do with chance, who mocks you from her corner, where she sits with a spiked crown. In such a state, alone in your study, with your computer’s screen saver swirling stars in an onyx infinity, you get closer to a certain truth. You start to feel woozy, even faint. Open the window! Get some air! Stare up at the sky, which is fading to lavender now as the day comes to a close.
Incompetence disjoints and destabilizes. It is closer to the truth of the human condition than competence, and thus, in some crazy way, when you are your incompetent self, you are living a life that is more honest, more in stride with what and who we humans are. Oh, sure, we have accomplished a lot, but we still have not answered the most rudimentary questions about how we came to be. We have not figured out basic brain facts, like why antidepressants work or don’t work. We have theories galore but few definitive answers. Competence shields us from this. Pick up a paintbrush for the first time, though, and soon you’re muddying about like the lower life-form you are. It causes anxiety. It takes humility.
In three weeks I completed more than fifty piss-poor paintings, and yet when I saw myself in the mirror, it was as though some invisible artist had daubed color on my cheeks. I felt invigorated, like the Greek heroes when they visited Hades and returned to tell the story. What a gift it would be if we could visit death and then return to report on what we saw there. Would it be the infinite emptiness so many of us fear? Would it be skyscrapers and condominiums with rent control and beauty salons, perfectly healthy people with no pulses getting layers and perms? Would it be the world as we know it, only with our bodies atomized and dispersed into particles of dust, dirt, and light? No one can say, although those who have died and been resuscitated tend to claim that the other side is a place of unspeakable beauty. Of course, the beauty they have seen may well be the hallucinations of an oxygen-deprived brain on its way out. No one knows. When it comes to death, we are incompetent. When it comes to life, we are mostly incompetent. To complicate the matter, we are incompetent about our incompetency. We do not know how to dangle. We do not know how to be in a hole. We have our rules of punctuation and grammar and can package pretty much anything, except this: The dimming of the day. The fact that the heart is made to beat 3 billion times and no more.
I went to visit my mother the other day. We are not close. There is rancor between us, and lots of unfinished business. She lives in a tony part of town, in a gorgeous condominium with coffered ceilings and abstract paintings and china birds perpetually poised on glass twigs. On her doorstep I pushed the buzzer. My mother’s maid, Margaret, opened the door, a feather duster in one hand, a little white apron tied over neat black slacks. Margaret has worked for my mother for decades, has seen her through her divorce from my father, her remarriage, her advancing age. Margaret smelled of mothballs and perfume when she hugged me hello, and I was grateful for the contact.
I sat on my mother’s vast couch and stared at the china birds. A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on acres of green, the grass kept golf-course short, nothing out of place. When my mother entered the room, she pecked the air next to my cheek, her lips painted plum, her rouge visible, her hair as hard as a helmet and styled like one, too. Although she has no job and nowhere to be, she still wears heels and dresses and nylons that never run. Her husband, Allyn, is ninety years old and battling a persistent cough. My mother is eighty-three and has sciatica but is otherwise of robust health, years of playing tennis at the club having left their imprint on her body. She has not picked up a racket in decades, but her biceps are still defined, her waist slim, her long legs showing molded muscle.
My visit had no particular purpose. We spoke of this and that. If you had been watching, you would never have been able to tell that this woman has entered me so completely that it is her voice I heed in my head, that her mandates from my childhood are inscribed on the inside walls of my body. It does not look that way. I told her of some accomplishments, mine and my children’s, because this was what she wanted to hear. She offered me some biscotti, and even though I dislike biscotti, I took one to be polite. The doorbell rang, and Margaret came and said my mother’s hairdresser had arrived. My mother looked at her diamond-studded watch and said, “She’s early.”
Then my mother, the hairdresser, and I all walked down a dimly lit hallway. We entered a spacious bathroom, the shower stall of glass and tile, the floor swirled marble. My mother sat in a chair and tipped her head back into a large sink while the hairdresser pumped the spray nozzle over my mother’s head, the hard helmet of hair melting almost immediately, suds blossoming, the hairdresser’s fingers massaging my mother’s scalp as bubbles popped almost audibly. The scent of shampoo filled the steamy room, aromatic, dizzying, making me feel giddy, inspiring in me a desire to touch my mother’s blossomed head, but I did not. I could not, because in our family we do not touch, and also because the hairdresser had turned on the sprayer again, and my mother had leaned back into the warm water, soap rushing down the drain, all the blossoms gone. Then came the quick creme rinse, more water, and — done. The hairdresser went to get fresh towels, and my mother sat up. What I saw shocked me. Her soaked pelt was the color of caramel, clearly dyed. Wetted down, her gray hairs were visible, and without her high helmet, held in place with loads of Aqua Net, she looked small, diminutive. I recalled her having chestnut hair, thick and rippling, when I was a child, but the hair she had left was tatty, more haze than hair, and so thin I could see through to her scalp, where there were moles and marks and scrawls of veins. In a mere five minutes, from a simple stream of water, my mother had melted; she had aged, 83 becoming 93 becoming 103, and then poof. The witch is dead. All the people dance.
If I could, I would paint her, preserve her in place, spray the canvas with fixative. If I could, I would paint her image and then roll over it with a suffocating purple. But I can’t. At home that night I couldn’t escape the thought of my mother, small and soaked, with irregular moles on her scalp. I went to my study, where sat my computer and my paints and a big stone sink on copper legs. This sink would survive all of us. I leaned against it. I turned on the tap and watched the water fall into the basin, curl down the drain. I was haunted by my mother’s head. I already had so much of her in me, and now this, too? I reached instead for a pencil and a blank piece of printer paper, and I sat down and sketched her, gave her her face, her almond eyes, and the smallest smile. I gave her the thick, rippling hair from my childhood. I gave her her lean legs and her biceps. I had no idea if the picture was good, bad, horrendous, incomprehensible, incompetent, somewhat competent. I had no idea. I was beyond that now, in a place where it all ceased to matter. I made her young again, and I gave her her heart. When I was finished, I tacked her to my wall. There she stays, a memory of a memory of a memory. I can love her this way. For some reason I do not really understand, her voice inside me has softened. Sometimes. The other day a friend visited me in my studio. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing to the picture. She went over and peered at it closely. “A giraffe?”
I laughed. It didn’t matter. Or it mattered more than anything. I felt like I had traveled very far.
As one who has ridden the thin rail between incompetency and competency for most of my life, I have learned to accept that, regardless of the endeavor, the results of my efforts will be neither exceptional nor dismal. I have become comfortable with just plain average. And that’s why Lauren Slater’s candid essay “In Praise of Incompetence” [July 2018] hit me so hard. As she embraced competence in the art of writing and wrestled with incompetence in the medium of watercolor, the end result was a stellar piece of writing.